Pandemic, super-capitalism and struggle

12 Apr

The civilizational crisis of our age, in my view, is defined by capitalism’s inability to generate incomes for the majority of humanity, to provide jobs and meaningful social roles, end fossil fuel emissions, and translate revolutionary biological advances into public health. These are convergent crises, inseparable from one another, and need to be seen in their complex ensemble, not as separate issues. But to put it in more classical language, the super-capitalism of today has become an absolute fetter on the development of the productive forces necessary for our species survival.

Two of my last three posts on covid-19 have featured the word ‘questions’ in their titles. In an exchange below the second of those, written yesterday, I wrote of:

… people on all sides having difficulty accepting the reality of uncertainty and – like kids in the schoolyard threatening one another with “my dad’s gonna beat up your dad” – citing their experts of choice as if cherry picked scientists and cherry picked findings could somehow deliver a decisive verdict on a matter as complex as this.

I’ve seen people I respect adopt messianic tones as they toss inflammatory terms around like confetti. “Cowards”, shriek those who insist this is no worse than flu, and that those who accept CV-19 as a new and grave threat must ipso facto be frit by mainstream ‘fear porn’. “Idiots”, bellow back those who say anyone questioning the lockdown must be a conspiracy wingnut ….

I wish people weren’t quite so damn sure of themselves, but as uncertainty rises, so does our compulsion to embrace the illusion of certainty.

Questions, questions and more bloody questions. Here’s three more. One, how deep must our Western intelligentia heads be buried in the sand to deem our lifestyles compatible with – and mysteriously decoupled from the geographically skewed suffering of – a planet shared by eight billion people?

Two, what kind of deranged coincidence theorists must we be to suppose a system that makes a tiny few fabulously wealthy, while condemning billions to wretched subsistence, just happens to be the best possible way of organising social relations for the task of producing the material conditions of human existence?

Three, what will it take to open our eyes to the truth that those now globalised social relations make pandemics like the current one inevitable, recurring and – the market driven search for vaccines notwithstanding – increasingly unsolvable?

Viruses hijack the genetic machinery of invaded cells to make copies of themselves. Viruses based on DNA have a built-in proof-reading mechanism to ensure accurate replication, but RNA viruses don’t. Influenza A, with 4 genes (corona has 8), is so error prone in reproduction it probably hovers on the edge of extinction, pushing rate of mutation to the limit, a million times faster than DNA-based viruses or cells. Spitting out so many different and inaccurate versions of one’s genome has a huge advantage in resisting the human immune system. This is why influenza A changes annually and continues to sicken humans despite many previous infections.

Mutations usually occur in the ‘heads’ of the two to three proteins on the virus’s surface that allow it to “dock” on a human cell and then enter. Those are the sites that annual vaccines target. But the “stalks” of these proteins are stable and don’t mutate. Virtually all researchers agree that the tools exist to fashion a broadband vaccine that incapacitates the invariant stalks thus conferring general immunity against all strains that might last for years. The research is out there, but Big Pharma won’t develop or manufacture such a vaccine because it is not profitable. (If given a radical design for a car that lasts for a lifetime, would GM manufacture it?)

The above quote, and my opener, are from an interview with Mike Davis: writer, historian and Distinguished Emeritus Professor at University of California, Riverside. He’s a recipient of a McArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction. More important than any of these things, in this interview (2900 words) he offers the best overarching perspective – which is to say an anti-imperialist perspective enriched by a thorough grounding in relevant science – I’ve so far seen on the pandemic. It begins:

Some viruses have natural breeding grounds, like cholera for instance. Almost all cholera outbreaks originate in the warm, fecal-rich waters of the Gulf of Bengal. Others have permanent homes in animal families: plague in rodents, influenza in wild birds, yellow fever in monkeys and coronaviruses in bats. Influenzas usually emerge in the south of China: an inadvertent consequence of one of civilization’s greatest success stories. For several millennia, the farming system of southern China, which subsequently spread through southeast Asia, has been the most productive on earth, with domestic ducks and chickens raised side-by-side with pigs in rice fields that produce two harvests a year. Lots of protein with a double portion of carbs. But the flooded paddies attract migratory birds that often pass on new flu strains to ducks and chickens, who in turn infect pigs, an animal whose immune system closely resembles our own. The leap from swine to man is easy and sometimes catastrophic. Since pigs can acquire flu from birds and humans, a double infection can lead to the “reassortment” of their gene segments and the creation of a hybrid virus with wild bird lethality that also has a key to enter human respiratory cells. The result is a pandemic, as in 1918-19.

Read in full …

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7 Replies to “Pandemic, super-capitalism and struggle

    • Have you run out of jigsaw puzzles, Tracy? We have, and Jackie says the Del Boys of this world are selling on eBay secondhand ones – the kind we used to buy, and these guys probably did too, in charity shops for £1.50 – for the £12-15 price of new puzzles the regular shops and online suppliers have run out of!

  1. Good morning Phil. Thank you for this fascinating post. We live in confusing times, but you regularly manage to shine some light on the darkness. You keep asking the right questions in my opinion.
    I have read your words almost every day for a long time now without previously posting a comment. Today, I felt compelled to thank you for your writings and, in earlier posts, your photographs. The world needs more decent, socialist people like you Phil.

    • Geoff that’s really kind of you to say these things. Thank you. We writers are thin skinned souls, and we leftists are prone to frequent bouts of despair and self doubt. Seasonally adjusted statistics show that “why bother?” is a question put by me to me 4.265 times a week over the past five years.

      A comment like yours quickens the heart and refortifies the fighting spirit. It makes all the difference, mate.

  2. I agree with Geoff. Well done. And thanks to Mike Davis a voice from the wilderness of California, too.
    And now to share this as widely as I can…

    • Thanks bevin. I came across it on FB, posted by Vaska – an OffGuardian editor who offers a more straightforwardly anticapitalist take on this than do her fellow editors, who are focused on the unquestionably real and disturbing drift to police statehood. History shows time and again that inroads on freedom on the back of moral panic (real, manufactured or a mix of the two) are not easily reversed.

      Not that Davis is blind to these aspects, but he is more firmly focused on the now globalised relations of production I call imperialism, and he calls ‘super-capitalism’:

      The present crisis does force capital, large and small, to confront the possible breakdown of its global production chains and the ability to constantly re-source cheaper supplies of overseas labor. At the same time, it points to important new or expanding markets for vaccines, sterilization systems, surveillance technology, home grocery delivery and so on. The combined dangers and opportunities will lead to a partial fix: new products and procedures that reduce the health risks of constant disease emergence while simultaneously spurring the further development of surveillance capitalism. But these protections will almost certainly be limited — if left up to markets and authoritarian nationalist regimes — to rich countries and rich classes. They will reinforce walls, not pull them down, and deepen the divide between two humanities: one with resources to mitigate climate change and new pandemics and the other without.

  3. ”…one with resources to mitigate climate change and new pandemics and the other without.”.

    Perhaps the regimes have recognised that their underlying and non-substitutable resource – incredible amounts of surplus energy – is now in secular decline. Coronavirus emergency powers could therefore be seen as a framework for permanent rationing for the people, brought up as we have been on the expectation that industrial capitalism could go on delivering more goodies for more people for ever.

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